THE 2016 LEMBERG MEDAL: JANE VISVADER
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
Professor Jane Visvader is joint head of the Division of Stem Cells and Cancer at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. She obtained her PhD in molecular biology under the late molecular virologist Robert Symons in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Adelaide. She then carried out postdoctoral work at the Salk Institute with Professor Inder Verma, and at WEHI with Professor Jerry Adams. Her contributions to defining regulators of haematopoiesis were recognised by appointment as a Faculty member at WEHI in 1993. This was followed by an appointment as a Harvard Medical School Instructor in Boston, where she continued to study molecular regulators in the blood compartment with Professor Stuart Orkin. In 1998, Jane was recruited to Victoria by the prestigious Victorian Breast Cancer Research Consortium (VBCRC) to establish a Breast Cancer Laboratory at WEHI jointly with Professor Geoff Lindeman.
Over the past decade, Jane and her team have made important contributions to the mammary biology and breast cancer fields by isolating mammary stem cells, defining master regulators of mammary gland development and identifying genetic lesions that drive oncogenesis. In 2006, Jane and colleagues published a milestone study in Nature describing the successful isolation of the long-sought mouse mammary stem cell. In other work, it was revealed that breast stem cells are highly responsive to steroid hormone signalling, despite lacking hormone receptors, thus explaining the long-established epidemiological link between hormone exposure and breast cancer. Several master regulators that orchestrate cell fate decisions in the mammary gland have also been defined, providing an indispensable framework for understanding mammary lineage commitment and differentiation. Jane and colleagues subsequently proved the existence of an analogous hierarchy in human breast and derived unique gene signatures for the different subpopulations. This work led to the discovery that aberrant luminal progenitors, rather than stem cells, are the transformation target in BRCA1-associated basal tumours. Most recently, Jane’s extensive bank of human breast cancer xenografts has begun to serve as excellent preclinical models for testing new therapeutic drug combinations for the treatment of breast cancer.
Jane’s work, supported by her close collaborator Geoff Lindeman, many outstanding postdoctoral fellows and PhD students, and funding from the NHMRC, NBCF, VBCRC and other funding bodies, has been published in over 150 papers. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and the recipient of a NHMRC Australia Fellowship. She has received awards including the Tschira Stiftung Lectureship (German Cancer Centre), the GlaxoSmithKline Award for Research Excellence (joint award) and the Royal Society of Victoria Medal for Excellence in Research.